Breath of the Earth, The Native American Flute

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Breath Of The Earth
The Native American Flute
by Annette C. Eshleman


People listen to and play the Native American flute for any number of reasons: reflection, meditation, relaxation, even prayer. These were not its intended purpose. The "love flute," according to Lakota legend, was originally an instrument of courting. The legend says that a young man, while hunting in the forest, came upon a tree which had been eaten away by termites and pecked with holes by woodpeckers. As the wind stirred, a beautiful sound came from its branches. The young man removed a branch and returned to his village. This branch would become the first flute.

As an instrument of courting, the flute was played only by men. It was believed that when a young man played his flute, the wind would carry the song into the heart of his chosen love.

The Native American flute has a limited musical scale, or range. The character of each instrument reflects the character of the maker as much as the player. Flutes are made one at a time and by hand (usually from cedar) and the specifications used are unique to the maker. The length from elbow to fingertip or the width of a thumb help to determine the size and tone of the finished product. There are no standardized dimensions and therefore no standardized sound. Each flute is a sculpture, a physical work of art which produces music.

One of the most symbolic aspects of these flutes is the cedar from which they are constructed. Flutist Kevin Locke says, "The heart of the cedar... the center of it, or the pit, is red and soft. That has to be removed by the flute maker. And so then the flute player, of course, has the obligation to restore that... to replace that with his own heart." Of the trees themselves he says, "It gives of its heart so that people can do something beautiful with it."

Locke is a Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. He has dedicated much of his life to learning and preserving the traditional flute songs of his people. He spends over half of each year touring and performing, having visited a total of 70 countries. He performs mainly at folk festivals, schools and the like, sharing his songs and message of unity with appreciative audiences.

Locke's solo flute songs can be found on Love Songs of the Lakota [Indian House] a 1983 recording just released for the first time on CD. His popular Dream Catcher series is also available from EarthBeat! Records.

Other traditional style players include Robert Tree Cody and Robert Mirabal. Tree is of Dakota-Maricopa heritage and incorporates aspects of several Native cultures into his original songs. Dreams from the Grandfather [Canyon Records] is a fine example of his work. Mirabal is Taos Pueblo and uses classical as well as traditional influences in his compositions. Mirabal's recent release Song Carrier [MTI Music] is a collection of material culled from self-released cassettes, while Land [Warner Western] is his interpretation of a modern dance piece.

New Fusions of sound and style are happening constantly on the contemporary musical landscape. The Native American flute is being combined with a wide variety of instruments creating new interest in many Native cultures. It is these contemporary artists, perhaps more than any other, who help to illustrate that this music is the result of a living culture. Not to be reserved for the museum or some long forgotten history book, instead it should be discovered, experienced, and shared.

One of the most well-known contemporary artists is Bill Miller, a Mohican from the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. He's been adding the flute to his own music for several years as well as contributing to other artists' recordings.

For Miller, the flute is just one aspect of the larger picture. "I use the flute as part of a layering and part of a prayerful effect in the music," he said. I combine Native with rock, Native with folk, flute music and a pow wow singer with a full band." Although clearly interested in breaking new ground, Miller stressed the importance of respect. "I treat it (the flute) as a sacred instrument," he said. "That's from a tree, its roots were in the ground, it was filled with birds. It's got to be played with sensitivity."

This attitude has borne fruit in the form of Miller's latest work, Native Suite [Warner Western], a collaboration with Robert Mirabal. The two have combined traditional instruments and vocals with a four movement form, similar to a classical album. The result is a powerful and sweeping piece of music.

Although more difficult to obtain, Miller's 1991 release Loon, Mountain, And Moon [Rosebud Records] is worth the effort. The collection of original flute compositions is complemented by acoustic guitar and Native percussion.

Another group making contemporary music is Burning Sky. The acoustic trio have just released their second album in as many years, The Blood of the Land [Canyon Records]. Their sound is a blend of styles and instruments featuring Latin style guitar, Native percussion and the cedar flute.

No discussion of the Native American flute would be complete without mentioning R. Carlos Nakai, probably the most popular and influential artist playing this instrument today. Nakai is of Navajo-Ute heritage and lives in Arizona. His formal musical training was centered on the classical cornet and trumpet (the latter still makes occasional appearances on his albums).

In addition to his many flute projects, Nakai has collaborated with pianist Peter Kater and guitarist William Eaton, releasing several albums with each. Ethno-jazz group Jackalope is the brainchild of Nakai and keyboardist Larry Yañez. Very much a hybrid of musical influences, the four-piece ensemble relies heavily on synthesized sounds with a freewheeling improvisational attitude.

An accomplished musician, Nakai has a total of 23 albums to his credit. If that weren't enough, he's just completed his first book, The Art of the Native American Flute [ISBN 0-964788-60-8] which is due for release in spring, 1996. The book's 14 chapters cover everything from style to history to care and maintenance of the instrument.

There are literally hundreds of flute albums today. The few artists mentioned here are just a beginning. A good starting point for exploration are compilation albums. Two recent releases are a fine place to begin. Between Father Sky and Mother Earth [Narada] features the work of ten Native artists, mixing chants and healing songs along with the flute music. Tribal Winds [EarthBeat! Records] is an intertribal collection and samples the flute music of several Indian Nations. Both discs boast informative sleeve notes with background on the artists and more.

The smooth warm tones of the Native American flute appeal to something very deep within people. It's an instrument intended to convey emotions and resemble the human voice. Kevin Locke spoke of the flute's expressiveness, "People may feel like somehow they can really connect to this kind of music," he said. "(It) eliminates that boundary or that barrier that separates us from the past, and also from the future. Really invokes a sense of timelessness."

Bill Miller, too, echoed this feeling, "I consider it extremely spiritual. It does something to me. And if it's doing it to me, the flute player, the maker, how can it not do something to the stranger? How can it not affect you?"



This is the full text of an article from the current issue of Dirty Linen #64
The Dirty Linen Pages are all copyright ©1996 by Dirty Linen, Ltd, Baltimore, MD

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